Opponents of St. Tammany Parish’s proposed “fracking” well scored a small victory this week when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to extend by 20 days the public comment period on Helis Oil & Gas’ application for a wetlands permit.
The agreement, announced Thursday, came in response to a motion filed in federal court last week by the Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany organization asking a judge to halt the permitting process altogether.
Under the agreement, Helis’ application still will be considered; whether a public hearing will be held remains up in the air.
However, the public will have until midnight June 16 to submit comments on the application, which is available on the Corps’ website. The original public-comment period closed May 5. That later was extended to May 15.
In its motion for a temporary restraining order, CCST said Helis’ full application had not been made available without the submission of a public-records request, which it said hindered the public’s right to make an informed comment.
The group also filed a similar motion in state court in Baton Rouge, seeking to prevent the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality from issuing a water certification as part of Helis’ wetlands application. LDEQ indicated to CCST that it, too, would extend its public comment time.
Marianne Cufone, the attorney for the citizens group, said the extended comment periods are sufficient.
“They agreed to what we asked for,” she said. “Our specific role in this is over at the moment.”
Helis’ plan to drill a single oil well on an undeveloped 960-acre tract north of Interstate 12 and east of La. 1088 has generated a rising tide of opposition ever since it became known in April. Fracking opponents have turned out in force at public meetings, even staging a silent vigil outside a fundraiser for Parish President Pat Brister on Tuesday night.
Brister has repeatedly said the parish is limited in what it can do to prevent Helis from drilling the well. Instead, she has said, parish leaders should focus on doing what they can to mitigate the project’s effect on roads, the water supply and the surrounding area, such as Lakeshore High School, which is about a mile from the proposed drilling site.
Some opponents have accused Brister of complicity in the plan and launched petitions calling for her removal. She’s not the only target of their ire: Similar recall petitions were filed on all 14 Parish Council members, but they were invalidated because the two leaders of the petition drives are not residents of the districts represented by those they want to recall. Activists have promised to recruit residents of each district to refile the petitions.
At the center of the debate is the method by which Helis intends to extract oil from the site. “Fracking” is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, a method by which water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the ground and used to create fissures in deep rock formations. Oil and natural gas are able to move through the fissures and are pumped to the surface.
Fracking is a relatively new process and has been controversial in other parts of the country, where it has been blamed for health and environmental problems. Those potential problems have been the chief focus of local opponents of the process, who warn that any damage to the aquifer that serves St. Tammany Parish could have devastating consequences.
Oil industry representatives have insisted the method is safe and pointed out that the shale formation where Helis hopes to find oil is about 2 miles deeper underground than the aquifer. Several layers of steel piping and cement will be used to protect the aquifer from fluids traveling up and down the well, and Helis has said it operates several dozen fracking wells safely and responsibly.
In addition to its wetlands permit application, Helis has requested a unitization hearing before the Louisiana commissioner of conservation. That hearing originally was scheduled for May 13, but company officials agreed to delay it for 30 days in order to give parish officials more time to study the proposal.
A unitization hearing, which sets the boundaries of the drilling “unit” or parcel, must be held before a drilling permit can be issued. Helis has not applied for a drilling permit from the state yet.
Helis’ planned well is at the southeast tip of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, a formation deep underground that some feel may hold as much as 7 billion barrels of oil. The focus of drilling activity in the shale to date has been in the Felicianas, St. Helena Parish and southwest Mississippi.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.